Early 2021 MLB MVP Rankings: Ronald Acuna Jr., Mike Trout Early Front-Runners

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 10, 2021

Early 2021 MLB MVP Rankings: Ronald Acuna Jr., Mike Trout Early Front-Runners

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    Mike Carlson/Associated Press

    The American League and National League MVPs won't be decided for months still, but the 2021 Major League Baseball season has gone far enough for each race to start coming into focus.

    So, we've ranked the top five candidates for the AL and NL MVP awards.

    This naturally involved weighing players' production, but no MVP discussion can ever be completed without getting into why the numbers matter. Because if players' performances aren't moving their clubs' chances of finishing with a winning record or making the postseason, what's the point?

    Let's start with some honorable mentions and count 'em down, starting in the National League.

Honorable Mentions

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    Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
    Vladimir Guerrero Jr.Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    First 5 Out in the American League

    • SP Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees
    • SP Tyler Glasnow, Tampa Bay Rays
    • 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays
    • SP John Means, Baltimore Orioles
    • DH Yermin Mercedes, Chicago White Sox


    First 5 Out in the National League

    • RF Nick Castellanos, Cincinnati Reds
    • SP Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
    • RF Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillies
    • C Carson Kelly, Arizona Diamondbacks
    • 3B Justin Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers

NL No. 5: SP Brandon Woodruff, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 7 G, 7 GS, 41.2 IP, 21 H (2 HR), 51 K, 11 BB, 1.73 ERA, 239 ERA+, 2.0 rWAR

    No thanks to Christian Yelich's ongoing back problems, the Milwaukee Brewers have struggled so badly on offense that they're second to last in the National League in OPS+.

    Milwaukee is nonetheless winning more often than it's losing because of its starting pitchers. While the best of those is strikeout-to-walk god Corbin Burnes, the most valuable is Brandon Woodruff.

    Mainly courtesy of a fastball that's gotten as high as 99 mph, the 28-year-old has truly dominated as he's also racked up innings. To wit, he's one of only two National League pitchers with as many as six starts of at least six innings and no more than two earned runs.

    Woodruff has also done some of his best work with men in dangerous situations, holding hitters to three hits in 22 at-bats with runners in scoring position. As such, it's no accident that Milwaukee is 5-2 in his starts despite its woeful offense.

NL No. 4: C Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 22 G, 85 PA, 8 HR, 0 SB, .400 AVG, .471 OBP, .760 SLG, 245 OPS+, 1.5 rWAR

    Set the bar for entry at 80 plate appearances, and there sits Buster Posey with the highest OPS+ of any hitter in Major League Baseball.

    Talk about a stunning turnaround.

    Though Posey is a six-time All-Star who won the NL MVP in 2012, his returns started drying up in 2018 and 2019 and he then opted out of 2020. But he's healthy and operating with a revamped swing in 2021, and his production has made a difference for a San Francisco Giants squad as it has risen to the top of the NL West.

    Yet the catches with the 34-year-old's MVP candidacy are twofold. For one, he's not exactly playing every day. For two, he's only driven in 12 runs and struggled with just a .182 average in high-leverage spots. As a result, his wins above replacement are backed up by just a 0.3 mark for win probability added.

NL No. 3: LF Jesse Winker, Cincinnati Reds

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 25 G, 110 PA, 6 HR, 0 SB, .354 AVG, .418 OBP, .626 SLG, 170 OPS+, 1.0 rWAR

    The Cincinnati Reds have a pretty good MVP candidate in right field in the person of Nick Castellanos, who's up to nine home runs with a stellar .316/.355/.632 batting line.

    So why favor Jesse Winker over him?

    In part because his average and on-base percentage underscore how he's been the most consistent hitter in a Reds lineup that's had its ups and downs. He's tied for second in the National League with 11 multihit games, and Cincinnati has won more of those (6) than it has lost (5).

    Winker has also been clutch regardless of how you prefer to measure "clutch." He's hitting more than .400 with men on base and runners in scoring position, as well as in both medium- and high-leverage situations. It's no wonder that he has a comfortable lead over other NL hitters in win probability added.

NL No. 2: 3B Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 32 G, 136 PA, 9 HR, 1 SB, .308 AVG, .397 OBP, .650 SLG, 185 OPS+, 1.4 rWAR

    Though the Chicago Cubs haven't had the best of times in 2021, they would undoubtedly be worse off without Kris Bryant.

    The 2016 NL MVP came into this season with much to prove after his stardom wavered in 2018 and 2019 and then tanked entirely in 2020. But this is the healthiest he's been in some time, and he's also working with a new swing that he and his father, Mike, cultivated over the winter.

    Per his 1.064 OPS with runners in scoring position, Bryant is having a career-best season in the clutch from at least one perspective. But for the sake of adding one more, we'll note that five of his nine homers have given the Cubs either a tie or the lead.

    With more of this, the 29-year-old might just go into free agency fresh off a second MVP season.

NL No. 1: RF Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 32 G, 141 PA, 10 HR, 6 SB, .305 AVG, .404 OBP, .636 SLG, 176 OPS+, 1.3 rWAR

    After winning the division in 2018, 2019 and 2020, it's been a struggle for Atlanta in the NL East thus far in 2021. But at least the club has Ronald Acuna Jr. going for it.

    If exit velocity is the best measure of pure power, then his is in the 97th percentile. He likewise has speed in the 97th percentile, which has helped him both steal bases and leg out hits like this one and this one.

    The 23-year-old also been eminently clutch. As the leverage has risen, so has his OPS from .865 in low to 1.081 in medium to 1.511 in high. Further, he's hit only three of his home runs before the fifth inning.

    So, it's misleading that Acuna isn't even a top-five NL position player by rWAR. It's more telling that he ranks third in win probability added, though there should be little question as to which of them is having the better season.

AL No. 5: 3B Jose Ramirez, Cleveland

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 32 G, 135 PA, 9 HR, 4 SB, .259 AVG, .348 OBP, .543 SLG, 145 OPS+, 1.4 rWAR

    How has Cleveland beaten relatively muted expectations to go 18-14 so far? It has a lot to do with a pitching staff led by ace Shane Bieber and relief aces James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase.

    But also, because Jose Ramirez simply hasn't missed when he's had a chance to help.

    He's taken 21 at-bats in high-leverage situations and produced hits in 10 of them, including four home runs. What's more, a whopping six of his nine homers have either tied the game or given Cleveland a lead.

    Clearly, Ramirez is still on the roll that began last September and has overall seen him hit .303/.391/.667 with 19 homers over his last 55 games. And while his rWAR doesn't stack up so far in 2021, he trails only Kyle Seager—whose overall numbers aren't quite as good—in win probability added among AL hitters.

AL No. 4: DH/SP Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    2021 Stats (Hitting): 31 G, 132 PA, 10 HR, 6 SB, .276 AVG, .326 OBP, .626 SLG, 159 OPS+1.2 rWAR

    2021 Stats (Pitching): 4 G, 4 GS, 18.2 IP, 7 H (1 HR), 30 K, 19 BB, 2.41 ERA, 183 ERA+, 0.7 rWAR

    From ESPN Stats & Information comes this amazing nugget: Shohei Ohtani is the only player since 1900 to hit 10 home runs as a hitter and tally 30 strikeouts as a pitcher through his team's first 30 games.

    Granted, this doesn't mean that the Los Angeles Angels star's two-way performance is beyond scrutiny. His on-base percentage isn't much to look at, and it's never a good thing when a pitcher has more walks than innings pitched.

    Yet Ohtani's offense and pitching have both mattered. Only he, Ronald Acuna Jr. and J.D. Martinez have as many as 10 home runs and 20 each runs scored and driven in. And even as flawed as he's been on the mound, he's still tied for second among Angels hurlers in rWAR.

    So if the 26-year-old can keep doing his thing on both sides of the ball, health may be the only thing that can take him out of the AL MVP race.

AL No. 3: DH J.D. Martinez, Boston Red Sox

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 33 G, 146 PA, 10 HR, 0 SB, .333 AVG, .425 OBP, .651 SLG, 196 OPS+, 2.0 rWAR

    Between J.D. Martinez and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the AL has two guys who are trying to hit their way to the MVP. And to be sure, each of them has a darn good case so far.

    We just like Martinez's more.

    Beyond being one of only three hitters in the 10-homer club, Martinez leads the majors with 82 total bases and 31 runs batted in. And even if he's done the bulk of his damage in low-leverage spots, the Boston Red Sox have nonetheless won 11 of the 16 games in which he's driven in at least one run.

    Mind you, the 33-year-old slugger had a point when he said in 2019 that a designated hitter would have to "walk on water" to win the MVP in this day and age. But if any offensive performance can sway analytically-minded voters, it's one like the one he has going right now.

AL No. 2: CF Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 24 G, 98 PA, 9 HR, 5 SB, .370 AVG, .408 OBP, .772 SLG, 233 OPS+, 2.7 rWAR

    Not a whole lot has gone right for the Minnesota Twins so far, and now they're set to be without Byron Buxton for a while after he went on the injured list with a hip strain.

    But if Mookie Betts could win the AL MVP despite playing in only 136 games in 2018, then Buxton might also have a shot at the award if he can avoid further injury trouble down the stretch.

    After all, his ability isn't really in question. He's dominated with both his power (i.e., 97th percentile exit velocity) and speed (i.e., 99th percentile sprint speed). He's also been consistent regardless of the leverage, with an OPS over 1.000 for low-, medium- and high-leverage spots.

    It's also not too early to read into Buxton's six defensive runs saved. Those track not only with the 27-year-old's Gold Glove reputation, but also what the eye test has registered as he's made dazzling play (here) after dazzling play (here) after dazzling play (here).

AL No. 1: CF Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 30 G, 123 PA, 8 HR, 1 SB, .376 AVG, .488 OBP, .713 SLG, 232 OPS+, 2.0 rWAR

    Even if he likely won't flirt with a .400 average and .500 OBP all season, Mike Trout is once again proving that he's the best hitter in MLB.

    Sure, he's struck out in 28 percent of his plate appearances and "only" 15 of his 20 walks have been unintentional. Yet he's still the ideal slugger, in that his zone discipline is excellent while his hard-hit and barrel rates are in the 94th and 97th percentiles, respectively.

    One caveat with Trout's MVP candidacy is that he's yet to turn on his clutch gene. Though half of his eight home runs have given the Angels either a tie or a lead, so far he's just 2-for-11 in high-leverage spots.

    Nevertheless, the Los Angeles Angels have won eight of the nine games in which Trout has gotten on base at least three times. So even if they're in last place in the AL West, the Angels can thank Trout for the fact that things aren't so much worse.


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.